An incredibly intense true-crime drama, let down somewhat by the drawn-out prologue. The violence is more pervasive than anything in its era, except perhaps for war movies. Maybe the social relevance of The Phenix City Story allowed for scenes that otherwise wouldn’t become commonplace in movies until the ’60s or ’70s.
The great thing about the documentary focus, with its real-life edge, is that there are no Rambo-like supermen cutting a swath through Phenix’s dens of iniquity. We’re dealing the Pattersons and Gages against Rhett Tanner and his underworld cohorts; some strong personalities, and some strong men. But just men. There is a danger, though, in true-crime adaptations, to reduce the conflict to a melodramatic contest of good vs. evil.
Most of the characters have some subtlety. Even the ringleader Tanner initially allows the Pattersons some slack, hoping that they’ll cooperate, or at least look the other way at his Phenix City mayhem. He doesn’t overtly threaten and attack them until it’s obvious that they will oppose him. I find myself thinking that the Pattersons are almost too good; by the time that their supporters gather at their front door, I wish John McIntire’s character would assent to their desire to attack the gangsters.
Something that’s handled very well is the seamless inclusion of the black family. They are involved in some of the more memorable incidents: the little girl’s body thrown from the gangster’s car; the subsequent reporting of which the policeman casually tosses off as “somebody dumped a n**ga kid’s body in a front yard” (paraphrased here). Then, near the end, the girl’s father persuades Albert not to drown his nemesis. Having important and sympathetic roles for black actors was unusual for the time, especially in a movie set in the South.
The sin-city locale is a lightning-rod for film noir, whether in a fictional El Paso of 1958’s Touch of Evil, or an actual small Alabama town. But Phenix City also has elements of a horror or a sci-fi monster film. A malicious entity at large in a small community, the unwillingness of many citizens to recognize or take action against it; and the courageous ones who do oppose the evil. Calling out the Army is certainly the go-to solution to deal with most monsters (even those monsters of the human variety).
As much as I liked The Phenix City Story, I couldn’t stand the initial ten-minutes with the reporter. Why tell the viewer what’s going to happen, when you’re going to show us? We’re given more than enough introductory material with the textual commentary and the very effective narrated scenes. Showing the mundane assembly of all the tools of the racketeer’s trade was a unique experience. It’s also the perfect lead-in to the first scene at one of the gambling clubs.
I now realize that there’s a version without the reporter’s bit. I’d give that a ‘9’. A very good movie in any case. 7/10.